a short history of Tahitian pearls

a short history of Tahitian pearls

Tales of the South Pacific conjure a dream of tranquil lagoons surrounded by sandy palm fringed islands where lazy days are passed sipping rum from coconuts. But if you can tear yourself away from your hammock for a few moments, you’ll find that these pristine turquoise lagoons are also the birthplace of the world’s most colourful pearls.

Polynesian legends tell the tale of Oro the god of war (although paradoxically in some legends he is also the god of peace and fertility) who fell in love with the princess of Bora Bora and descended to earth on a rainbow to give her the most precious gift the heavens had to offer – an iridescent black pearl.

A naturally formed black Tahitian pearl was so rare that they were traditionally only worn by royalty, but when European explorers discovered these remote islands at the edge of the earth they were less interested in the pearls and instead mesmerised by the incredible rainbow colours of the mother of pearl shell inside the black lip oyster. Stories tell of the shells being so prolific that it was impossible to walk in the shallows of the lagoons without stepping on them. In a staggering display of European pillaging the insatiable lust for this new material for buttons and inlay and other decorative items back in Europe led to an indiscriminate plunder of the lagoons of the Tuamotu islands until by the 1950s the black lip oyster shell was close to extinction.

It's thanks to the foresight of a few intrepid islanders who started collecting baby shells by floating a locally growing plant in the lagoon during the natural reproductive cycle of the remaining wild oysters that the black lip oyster has been saved and the Tahitian cultured pearl industry was born. The baby shells, still tiny little sprats, attach to the plant and can be collected to be grown to adulthood in a protected area. The mature shells can then be sold on to a pearl farm to be used for growing pearls and the wild oyster population lives in peace.

Although cultured pearl farming had been perfected in Japan from the late 1800’s it wasn’t until nearly a hundred years later in the 1970’s that pearl farming with the black lip oyster really got going in the islands of French Polynesia. Partly this was due to the extreme remoteness of these islands but also because the black lip oyster is a larger and more sensitive creature than the smaller akoya shell used for farming in Japan. The initial harvests of Tahitian pearls weren’t very exciting but thanks to the perseverance and tenacity of a handful of pioneering pearl farms together with the secretive expertise of Japanese pearl grafters there is now a thriving cultured pearl industry in the South Pacific.

It takes around two years for a sprat to grow large enough for the first pearl graft. An expert grafter inserts a shell bead together with a piece of mantle tissue and the oyster goes back into the lagoon in a protective basket for 18 months until the pearl is ready. At harvest time the pearl is gently removed and a bigger shell bead is inserted into the pearl sack. The oyster can grow up to five pearls over it’s lifetime and each time a bigger bead is inserted than the last which is how large size pearls are grown. The tricky bit is that as the shell grows older the quality of the nacre being deposited on the bead deteriorates and that’s why very large size pearls with beautiful lustre are rare and expensive. Tahitian pearls are usually found in sizes from 8 – 13mm, pearls over 15mm are rare.

Incidentally, although pearls from the black lip oyster are now also farmed in the Cook Islands and Fiji and a few other places, they can only be called Tahitian pearls if they are grown in the islands of French Polynesia. Usually farms will send their pearls to Tahiti where they are all mixed together for sale but increasingly it’s becoming possible to trace pearls directly to the pearl farm of origin, which is something we are really excited about. At The Goldsmiths Daughter we stock pearls from Kamoka pearl farm on Ahe atoll in the Tuamotos, as well as a small selection from other islands where we have travelled directly to the pearl farm. We have a selection of ready to ship Tahitian pearl jewellery and we source specific colours and shapes for bespoke work. We love to talk about black pearls and the gorgeous islands they come from so do get in touch for a friendly chat.

Havaiki pearl farm is a small scale family run farm on Fakarava atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago. They have a gorgeous beach resort and run daily tours of the farm. Fakarava has an airport with regular flights from Tahiti making it one of the few easily accessible islands in French Polynesia

Hugo will give you a lesson in pearl farming and you can play the pearl lottery where you pick an oyster to open and keep what you find. If you happen to be visiting during the grafting season you can also see the skilled grafters at work seeding pearls. The shell beads they use are made from freshwater mussel shells from the Mississippi river and each time a pearl is harvested a larger bead is put back into the oyster. After around 18 months in the lagoon there will be a thick layer of pearl nacre surrounding the bead.

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